Back in July, John Fitzsimmons was like a lot of high school coaches in Maine, excited about what might be a normal fall sports season despite the lingering coronavirus pandemic.

Indeed, the signs were encouraging. The Maine Principals’ Association had given a full go-ahead to all fall sports, a stark contrast to 2020, when the tackle football and indoor volleyball seasons were canceled. Best of all, with vaccines widely available to those 12 and older, the worst of the pandemic seemed to be over – at least in Maine. On July 12, the seven-day average of daily COVID-19 cases in the state was 14.

“It looked great all summer. Then double sessions (practices in August) even got us more excited because then it was real and close,” said Fitzsimmons, the football coach at Falmouth High.

But by then, case counts were rising rapidly in Maine and across the country because of the delta variant. On Aug. 16, the day that Maine high schools were allowed to begin fall practices, the seven-day average of daily COVID cases had soared to 174.

Now, with the state’s seven-day average climbing to 486 and 21 high schools dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks as of last week, it’s clear that nothing about high school sports will be normal this fall.

Less than three weeks into the start of the regular season for most sports, dozens of games have been postponed or canceled – forcing athletic directors to scramble to rearrange schedules and leaving some teams to practice or play games without unvaccinated students who must quarantine. One school has yet to play any games on its boys’ and girls’ soccer schedules, and its athletic director does not know if there’s enough time left this fall to make them up.

In football alone, at least 19 games across the state have been canceled – one-sixth of the 114 games on the original schedule. Last week, six football teams scrambled to find new opponents after being informed that the team they were scheduled to play couldn’t make it.

The Falmouth football team, which includes players from Greely High in Cumberland, had to cancel its game on Sept. 11 because of a COVID case on its team. The Navigators were cleared to play a game scheduled for late last week, but that game was canceled because of COVID concerns with its opponent, Mt. Blue. Falmouth was able to find a new opponent on the fly and hosted Medomak Valley on Saturday night. Medomak was supposed to play host Old Town, which had to bow out earlier in the week.

Falmouth High football coach John Fitzsimmons talks with his players during practice on Thursday. The team has been unable to play two scheduled games already this fall. “You better play every game you can and enjoy it,” he says. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“The reality of this pandemic just comes home real hard,” Fitzsimmons said. “Us canceling on a team, and then a team canceling on us, and then scrambling and hoping to find another opponent. It’s an insight into what the season will be like all along. And you better play every game you can and enjoy it.”

Because, as Marshwood High Athletic Director Rich Buzzell said succinctly, “The delta variant is not our friend.”

UNVACCINATED CLOSE-CONTACTS HAVE TO SIT

On Friday, Maine’s Department of Education announced that 1,390 COVID-19 cases have been reported in Maine schools among both staff and students in the past 30 days. During that time, there have been 52 outbreak investigations involving schools.

An outbreak investigation is opened by Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention after detecting three or more epidemiologically linked, confirmed cases among different households during a 14-day period. An outbreak investigation is closed when there has not been a new case associated with the school for 14 days (one incubation period).

An outbreak by itself does not force schools to cancel in-person learning or athletic contests. That is becoming an increasingly common result, however, especially when a team has a large percentage of close contacts who are not vaccinated and forced to quarantine. A vaccinated student can continue to participate in school and extracurricular activities unless they begin to show symptoms.

Dr. William Heinz, chairman of the Maine Principals’ Association’s Sports Medicine Committee, said the MPA anticipated games would be postponed or canceled.

“We certainly did and that’s why we emphasized the need for pool testing by the schools and the importance of vaccinations,” Heinz said.

Knowing it was likely there would be teams unable to play a full schedule, the MPA decided to use open postseason tournaments for soccer, field hockey and volleyball and made the decision that no team will be penalized for failure to complete its season. At this point, playoffs and state championships are expected to be contested.

“We continue to recommend that schools follow the CDC recommendations. Those include vaccinations, the masking and participating with pool testing,” said Mike Burnham, the MPA’s executive director.

Heinz expressed frustration at the number of schools yet to participate in pool testing and at unvaccinated high school student-athletes.

“All they have to do is be vaccinated and they’d be playing,” he said. “I don’t understand it. I don’t understand what the issue is. I’d be in favor of mandating vaccinations. If you want to play, you have to be vaccinated.”

‘WE ALL WERE HOPING TO … PLAY A NORMAL SEASON’

Of course, when one team can’t play because of COVID concerns, its opponent also loses a game or has to juggle its schedule.

On Friday night, Leavitt Area High School finally played its first football game, at Wells. Leavitt, the 2019 Class C state champions, had its first two games canceled because of COVID issues affecting its opponents.

“I think we all wanted to think (this season would be normal), but I think in the back of our heads we all knew that there was going to be some differences,” said Hunter Hayes, Leavitt’s senior quarterback and one of the team captains. “I mean, I don’t think we can really expect it to be back to normal because everything is still going on.”

Leavitt senior quarterback Hunter Hayes throws a pass during a game at Wells High on Friday night. “I don’t think we can really expect (the season) to be back to normal because everything is still going on.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Jack Boutaugh, another Leavitt senior captain, added, “We all were hoping to come out and play a normal season but we all kind of figured there were a lot of different things that could happen.”

Wells football coach Tim Roche is also a first-term state representative. He said he felt for the Leavitt players, to have games “ripped out from them,” especially after tackle football in Maine was canceled last fall.

“It has to be tough and I’m fully aware that this could be us in a week,” Roche said. “Wearing my (representative) hat, I’m in a meeting (recently) with the DOE and they’re saying cases are way high in schools. It’s not going away in schools right now. So we’re all facing it. We’re all in the same boat.”

Some boats, however, have more ballast because of higher vaccination rates. For those teams, a positive case will result in few if any close-contact teammates having to quarantine.

Vaccination rates for students aged 12-18 vary widely by school district, according to estimates from the Maine CDC.

Several school districts in Cumberland County are estimated to have greater than 95 percent of eligible students vaccinated. But there are many school districts across the state estimated to have student vaccination rates below 50 percent.

Cape Elizabeth football coach Sean Green said “nearly 100 percent” of his team is vaccinated.

“It’s a personal decision (to get vaccinated), but with the way (the state) is doing things this year, it’s the easiest thing you can do to ensure you can compete,” he said earlier this month.

But even Green’s team has been affected. The Capers’ first game was called off because of COVID issues with the Hermon football team. (Football games tend to be canceled, rather than postponed, because they are scheduled just once a week and the remainder of the schedule does not allow for makeup dates.)

The impact of COVID-19 is affecting other high school sports, too.

Neither the girls’ nor boys’ soccer team at Carrabec High School in Somerset County has played a game yet. Carrabec went to remote learning earlier this month because of a COVID-19 outbreak. As of Thursday, Carrabec still had five active cases and 83 people identified as close contacts in a school with an enrollment of 183 students. Of those 83 close contacts, just 11 were vaccinated and did not have to quarantine.

“This is frustrating,” said Erik Carey, Carrabec’s athletic director. “You look at the junior class, for example. The junior class has not had an uninterrupted year (of sports) yet.”

On Wednesday night, Carrabec’s school board voted to go back to in-class learning starting on Monday, with a mask mandate that was not in place at the start of the school year. This will allow the Cobras to finally play soccer. Carey said the boys have a game scheduled for Thursday against Dirigo, and the girls look to begin the season Saturday against Wiscasset.

Still, Carey acknowledged it will be difficult for his soccer teams to get in their full schedules of 14 games.

“I’m not sure there’s enough dates for us to make up all the games,” he said.

‘THERE ARE TOO MANY THINGS WE CAN’T CONTROL’

Contact tracing forced Winslow High School to postpone a field hockey game Tuesday against Nokomis. Coach Mary Beth Bourgoin, whose team won the Class B state title in 2019, said she hopes the team is able to resume activity on Thursday.

“I keep saying, people have bigger problems than we have not being able to play field hockey. What I told the girls is, we have to come to practice and every game ready to work hard because we never know,” Bourgoin said.

The Winslow field hockey team is shown during a game at Waterville High on Sept. 1. The Winslow team was forced to miss a game last week because of COVID-19 issues. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Bourgoin said her team will try to make up all games missed by playing on back-to-back days when possible.

The same scenario is unfolding at Class A field hockey powerhouse Skowhegan, which is on pause because of a positive COVID-19 case in its program. Other sports at Skowhegan have lost players forced to quarantine as close contacts, said athletic director Jon Christopher. The River Hawks played a Sept. 10 football game against Lawrence while missing five two-way starters who were out because of quarantine protocols, he said.

“Rescheduling is tough but doable for field hockey,” Christopher said. “Team schedules, the bus driver shortage, official shortage, and field availability are all part of the field hockey reschedule, as you try to avoid ever playing three games in a row on three straight days.”

Like Leavitt, Poland Regional High finally played its first football game on Friday night. Two of its opponents had to cancel games.

“I don’t know if these cancellations have caused kids to decide to go get vaccinations,” said Poland Athletic Director Don King. “I do think they have caused some kids to participate in our pool testing program. And I do know the cancellations have allowed me to have some conversations with kids, talking about how we don’t want to be the ones calling to cancel if we can help it.”

Buzzell, the Marshwood athletic director, has created a central tracking service to keep track of football games that have been canceled to facilitate teams creating new match-ups on the fly. Back in July, with high school sports in Maine coming off a relatively smooth spring season capped with state championships, Buzzell was not thinking he’d need a Google doc for cancellations.

“But I underestimated the amount of people who got vaccinated because that is what’s really wreaking havoc with programs,” Buzzell said. “I’m not frustrated. I wouldn’t say that. I’ve always been a person who believes that you can only control what you can control. There are too many things we can’t control and people being vaccinated is one of them.”

Staff Writer Mike Lowe contributed to this story.


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